An unprecedented event in the annals of global acequia culture was celebrated in the ancient botanical gardens of Valencia, Spain, and on the steps of its great cathedral last September—an official encounter of acequia irrigators from Spain and New Mexico, after four centuries apart. New Mexican culture is deeply influenced by Spain, despite having been separated politically for centuries and divided by half the globe. Yet, the richly hybrid Iberian legacy is still expressed under New Mexican skies through language, blood and water. Yes, water. And not for the sake of pointing out universal truths—yes, we all need water, just as we all need air!—but to highlight something more subtle and unsuspecting. Something you may not even notice while crossing the stunning semiarid New Mexican or Iberian countrysides, even though you’re staring right at it.
At first glance, an acequia might actually look like a small stream blending into the culturally green landscape. But, in fact, acequias are the lifelines of agriculture, food security and community that have flourished for centuries in both places. This common feature of New Mexico and Spain, inherited even further back from Arabs—the word acequia comes from the classical Arabic, al-sāqiya, meaning “the water carrier” or “the one who gives water”—gives a sense of brotherhood, or hermandad, to these disparate places. But, like estranged family members, the irrigation institutions of Spain and New Mexico were alienated over the course of history—until Sept. 24, 2014.
On this date in the warm Spanish autumn, in an auditorium of the tree-canopied Jardí Botànic (Botanical Gardens) of the University of Valencia, representatives from Valencia and New Mexico gathered before a diverse crowd of spectators for a Ceremony of Hermanamiento, or Brotherhood, of their respective acequia institutions. From the Valencian side were officials from the three major irrigation institutions of the huerta (cultivated land) of Valencia—the Tribunal de las Aguas de la Vega de Valencia (the famous medieval water court of Valencia’s main irrigation corporation); the Real Acequia de Moncada (Royal Moncada Acequia); and the Real Acequia del Júcar (Royal Júcar Acequia)—plus colleagues from as far away as Murcia. For New Mexico, Dr. José Rivera, renowned UNM acequia scholar, and Don Bustos, New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA) secretary and board member, participated.
In 2010, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) recognized the Tribunal de las Aguas de Valencia and the Consejo de Hombres Buenos de la Huerta de Murcia for enduring contributions to the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. They have exercised their leadership for more than a millennium, surviving empires, kingdoms, wars and dictatorships, through to the current democratic era. And Spain is fully cognizant of the achievements of the NMAA over the past quarter-century: the new legislation, the favorable New Mexico Supreme Court decisions, and the groundswell of acequia activism in defense of traditional water and land management
The ceremony was conducted with the fullest officialdom of the Valencian acequia authorities, conveying the seriousness with which water is treated in Spain. And the tone struck a palpable chord with the rest of the crowd, including the 24 delegates from New Mexico who know well the vital importance of water to cultural survival.
Enric Aguilar, the head of the Tribunal de las Aguas, gave the first introduction to the Hermanamiento, and then words were spoken by each of the representatives present. Following, the main declaration of brotherhood was read aloud, filling the auditorium with emotion, which culminated in the signing of the main document. Although brotherhood was declared and the spirits of both Valencia’s and New Mexico’s acequia water struggles were joined, the main symbolic exchange was yet to come.
On the following day, a crowd of a few hundred spectators gathered outside the Door of the Apostles at the Cathedral of Valencia as the clock approached noon, as is usual every Thursday. The spectacle was the weekly meeting of the Tribunal de las Aguas, the customary water court of the huerta of Valencia. But, quite unusually, right beside the gated circle of nine stately leather chairs emblazoned with titles like “Çequia de Tormos” and “Çequia de Mestalla” (çequia is acequia in Valencian Catalan), the New Mexico delegation of scholars and acequieros were in the front row.
Then, through the crowd, the alguacil, or bailiff, of the court, carrying a hooked bronze halberd, parted the crowd for a line of judges clad in black robes to enter the enclosure. They sat in the leather seats, right below the 12 stone apostles peering down from the massive cathedral. At the stroke of noon, the bells of the octagonal Miguelete Tower sounded, and the alguacil began calling, in the Valencian language, to plaintiffs and defendants from each acequia who might be in the crowd: “Denunciats de la sèquia de Tormos!” and so on. Because the irrigation system in the huerta is so well structured and efficient from a thousand years of fine-tuning, disputes are rare. But, today, the crowd was lucky enough to witness two separate trials, which were resolved on the spot, just as has been practiced since Moorish times, when the great Mosque of Valencia stood on the same spot. In fact, the tribunal is held outside, rather than inside, the cathedral in respect for Jewish and Muslim irrigators and occurs on Thursday in deference to the respective Sabbaths: Muslims (Friday), Jews (Saturday) and Christians (Sunday).
Following the resolution of the two disputes, a table was set in the middle of the ring of judges, and the tribunal proceeded to call forth NMAA’s Don Bustos to present him and the NMAA the tribunal’s Medal of Honor. Then, Bustos was invited to sign the tribunal’s own book of honored guests, and he read the elegant message aloud to the crowd, conveying respect and gratitude for the medal and the hermanamiento.
The Hermanamiento ceremony and presentation of the tribunal’s Medal of Honor was a truly momentous occasion of unique significance for New Mexico’s acequias and regantes, reforging the links between New Mexico’s and Spain’s sister traditions of water management and their communal and democratic customs.
Armando Lamadrid is an independent researcher and editor from New Mexico, based in Oslo, Norway. He has conducted research on acequia and climate change issues from Nepal and India to Spain and Perú. firstname.lastname@example.org